Case Picking: What It Is and How to Optimize It

What is case picking and what role does it play in my order picking operations? Plus, how to optimize your case picking for best efficiency.

What is case picking and what role does it play in my order picking operations? Plus, how to optimize it for best efficiency.

Any online business, retail store, or distribution center must have a warehouse storage and retrieval process. This process includes collecting items for customer orders and packing them for shipping and delivery. The standard way to describe collecting items for orders is “picking”. Therefore, the entire process is the “pick pack and ship” process.

Case picking is one such type order picking process. This is what we examine in this article.

What is a case?

A “case” is a single carton of items (in the context of picking operations and warehouse operations). Cartons contain a bulk number of items, usually of the same SKU. For example, a case of ballpoint pens may contain 100 pens.

Many times, the case is how the items are packed from the manufacturing phase in the supply chain. Manufacturers pack items in bulk cases to reduce the overall space consumed per item. Whereas, if items pack individually, the cost of the packing material increases significantly, as does the cost to transport and store.

warehouse worker picking cases to a conveyor

What is case picking?

Case picking is the collection of items by the carton (case) rather than individual units for customer orders. Usually, case picking requires the picker to move the required items from the pick list to a pallet or cart. In some larger warehouse operations like distribution centers, case picking operations pick to a conveyor to streamline productivity.

When Case Picking is Used

Most often, case picking is used in distribution centers where cartons of items move to retail stores or big box stores. Once the case of items arrives at a retail or big box store, they go onto shelves where the end customer may collect items in person or order them online.

Sometimes, however, a brand may function as a type of “wholesaler”. In this scenario, the wholesaler may choose to sell cartons directly to an end-customer. This eliminates the retailer and distributor relationship. Whether online or in-store, a wholesaler offers “bulk” quantities of items in their case rather than as individual items. An example of a wholesaler is the national brand, Costco.

Benefits of Case Picking

The main benefits of case picking are an increase in picking productivity and a reduction in storage space per item. These two benefits result in an overall reduction in costs per unit. These savings can either pass onto the end-customer (such as in the case of Costco) or simply function as added robustness in the supply chain.

A warehouse worker case picking on a conveyor system

Case Storage Methods

There are 3 different types of storage methods for cases. You should evaluate each one individually and decide which one is best suited for your operations. You can also combine different types of storage depending on each product or picking method to further optimize.

Pallet Storage

The most common and efficient method of storage for case picking is by pallet. This involves a warehouse picker simply retrieving cartons stacked on top of each other either on the floor or on a rack. This is the highest-density storage in general but certainly for case picking operations as well. Pallet storage also allows for the highest pick rate per hour or lowest time per pick in case picking.

Rack Shelf Storage

Storing cartons on shelving or racks (instead of pallets) is another common way to manage the storage of cases. While not as efficient as standard pallet storage, shelves allow for placing cartons at waist level, and may be more efficient for business that have a high number of SKUs and lower overall quantity of cases per SKU.

Because cases need to move from their inbound packing method (usually pallets) and onto shelves, this method can require more labor costs.

Carton Flow Rack Storage

A carton flow rack storage and retrieval system uses a type of gravity fed FIFO mechanism. Think of the way soda bottles dispense in convenience store cold storage shelves. When you pull the front item out, the remaining items automatically push to the front, replacing the front position of the item you just pulled.

Carton flow systems work exactly the same way, using gravity to move the next case to the front. These systems work best for very high efficiency pick times (number of picks per hour per employee) and even better suited for high SKUs than rack shelf storage. However, downside is storage efficiency is further reduced and labor costs are even higher.

How to Optimize Your Case Picking Operations

Select Your Storage Method by Item

Instead of using a “blanket” storage type for all items in your picking operations, consider selecting a storage type for each item. This way, your higher volume, or items with larger order volumes may use a carton flow or rack shelf method. Meanwhile, your larger or slower moving items can benefit from the order picking and space efficiency of regular pallet storage.

Case picking for ergonomics
Source: Prestolifts.com

Consider Ergonomics

If your order picking method involves picking items from very high or low areas, you may consider improving ergonomics to help streamline productivity. Not only does it increase the potential for injury, but poor ergonomics also reduces the number of picks per hour. This is especially true with case picking as cases are generally heavier.

One way to improve this is to place shelving no lower than waist level. For pallet storage, equipment such as a lift table for pallet.

Implement Technology Systems

Technology can be very helpful when looking to increase productivity in any kind of operations. However, technology by itself does nothing. Sometimes, the specific tech may not be helpful at all depend on what kind of order picking processes or other systems you have in place. Regardless, review the list below and you may determine that some of these technology systems can help your picking process.

Carton Flow Rack Storage

A carton flow rack storage and retrieval system uses a type of gravity fed FIFO mechanism. Think of the way soda bottles dispense in convenience store cold storage shelves. When you pull the front item out, the remaining items automatically push to the front, replacing the front position of the item you just pulled.

Carton flow systems work exactly the same way, using gravity to move the next case to the front. These systems work best for very high efficiency pick times (number of picks per hour per employee) and even better suited for high SKUs than rack shelf storage. However, downside is storage efficiency is further reduced and labor costs are even higher.

digital inventory for case picking

Directed picking

While typically useful for higher volume piece picking operations, directed picking can sometimes help with case picking operations. Directed picking is a system that guides pickers step by step to the item on the pick list.

Two types of directed picking are light-directed and voice-directed.

  • Light-directed picking is a system that utilizes indicators at each shelf location. Indicators light when a pick list shows an item or carton from that location that the picker needs to pick.
  • Voice-directed picking produces an audible version of the pick list. Instead of reading a pick list and then redirecting attention back to the actual order picking, voice-directed picking enables pickers to remain focused on collecting items.

Warehouse Management System

A warehouse management system (WMS) enables the automation of processes such as creating pick lists and enabling order picking according to different types of methods. These include zone picking, wave picking, and batch picking. In these methods, the pickers are assigned multiple orders or any number of orders rather than a single order. This happens according to an algorithm that determines the most efficient way to schedule workers for picking multiple orders.

Barcode Scanners

Barcode scanners and RF technology helps optimize case picking by reducing the time required to input transactions into the WMS or other database. Picking systems that include scanning a barcode at each step keep the status of orders updated in real time. Picking is often slowed down tremendously by any manual process. These just reduce the pick rate and increase the labor costs per order. A barcode system helps improve accuracy, and picks per hour.

Other Automated Systems

Automated systems such as robots or selective conveyor systems also help increase the efficiency of your case pick activities. These systems have an up front operation expense, but over time can reduce the cost and time per pick for your case pick operations.

Fast Moving SKU Placement

One of the simplest ways of optimizing your case picking process is to place your most popular SKUs in the areas with the least travel time. By doing this, even if you only pick one order at a time, your travel time is as low as possible. You can also optimize your SKU placement if you use other picking methods such as batch picking, zone picking, or wave picking.

A fast moving warehouse with forklift and pallet jack

Case Picking FAQ

Case picking in a warehouse is a fulfillment business that may perform inbound and outbound logistics and order fulfillment by the carton or case.

A case picker is a warehouse worker who is dedicated to the case picking operations. This means they focus only on completing pick lists for cartons, not individual items or pallets of material.

Split case picking is the a type of gathering of products on an order by individual items. Another name for split case picking is piece picking. The opposite of this is case picking which is an order picking process that collects an entire case (or carton) of products rather than individual items.

Open case picking is another name for piece picking or case picking where orders of products are collected by the item instead of the case (or carton) of items. The name “open case” simply refers to the case (or carton) being open instead of closed.

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